TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 people across Florida — spanning five counties, including Hillsborough and Miami-Dade — on charges of voting illegally, the conclusion of a two-month investigation spearheaded by the governor’s newly created state agency tasked with investigating election crimes.
DeSantis, in making the announcement Thursday afternoon in a courtroom at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, said there would be other arrests for people who cast ballots but were not eligible to vote in Florida for other reasons, including voters he said were noncitizens.
“If there are certain rules and regulations in place, if people don’t think that those are going to be enforced, you’re going to have more violations,” he said just five days before the 2022 primary election that will decide his opponent in November. “That’s just the way it goes.”
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Acting Commissioner Mark Glass said that officers made arrests Thursday in the Tampa, Orlando and Miami areas. Agency spokesperson Gretl Plessinger told the Herald that 17 people have been arrested so far: two in Miami-Dade, three in Broward, three in Palm Beach, four in Orange and five in Hillsborough. The suspects span ages 43 to 72.
There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy between the number of arrests DeSantis cited and the number of arrests provided by the agency.
Plessinger did not provide the arrest affidavits for each person but said they were each being charged with one count of false affirmation in relation to voting or elections and one count of voting as an unqualified elector. She said they all voted in the 2020 election but did not provide the dates the alleged crimes were committed.
DeSantis said the people arrested were disqualified from voting because they had been convicted of either murder or sexual assault and they do not have the right to vote. He said their rights were not automatically restored under Amendment 4, which excluded people who have been convicted of sexual assault and homicide from having their rights restored.
“That is against the law and now they’re going to pay the price for it, so they will be charged,” he said. “They are being charged and arrested today with election fraud.”
The arrest of the 20 people with felony records was part of the state’s new Office of Election Crimes and Integrity, which began on July 1, DeSantis said.
The charges are third-degree felonies that can result in fines of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison.
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He added that he is asking county elections officials to preserve all records from 2020 to allow the state to conduct ongoing reviews.
Few details on the people arrested
Under Florida law, the Florida Division of Elections makes the initial determination if a voter is ineligible to vote based on a felony record and is required to inform the county supervisors of elections of their findings.
It is not known whether this occurred for the individuals charged. The 2020 election was the first time the provisions of Amendment 4 had taken effect, allowing certain former felons to have their voting rights automatically restored.
The two-month probe uncovered 20 suspected incidents of voter fraud, and all the alleged crimes announced Thursday occurred in Democratic counties. But, DeSantis said, there is more to come and “we don’t want to be selective about it.”
“This is the opening salvo,” he said. “This is not the sum total of 2020.”
Four people were arrested on voter fraud charges in the Republican stronghold of The Villages in late 2021 and early 2022. Two of those arrested were registered as Republicans and two were registered with no party affiliation.
Thursday’s announcement drew the ire of some voting rights activists who saw the event as another item on the list of election-related laws and policies championed by DeSantis they say overwhelmingly target and affect Black voters.
“When there were people who voted twice in The Villages, a retirement community, he did not do a press conference there,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, a progressive grassroots political coalition. “This is all part of his campaign for governor and ultimately for his presidential ambitions.”
Concerns over changes in election law
Mercado’s group was one of several who sued the state over Senate Bill 90, a state election law passed in 2021 that limited the use of ballot boxes and added more onerous requirements to request a mail ballot. She said that DeSantis’ priorities, including his efforts to eliminate Black-plurality congressional districts, were more threatening to election integrity in the state.
“Broward County is the Blackest county in the state, and the bluest,” Mercado said. “He’s chasing down these very rare cases to make an example and legitimize his crackdown on” the election process.
One of the examples on Thursday came from Election Crimes and Security Office Director Peter Antonacci, who ran the Broward elections office after the forced departure of Brenda Snipes from the position in 2018. He said during the press conference that there is widespread voter fraud in Florida that has gone unpunished and pointed to the 2021 special election primary for Florida’s 20th Congressional District, an election that was won by just five votes.
“You may think that 20 voters is not a lot. But you’re in Broward County and you know that you just elected a person to Congress here this year by five votes,” Antonacci said.
He then suggested, without evidence, that there may have been fraudulent votes cast in that race.
“I’m certain that in that tranche of voters, there were plenty of illegal ballots cast, and it is just awfully unfair to the supporters of political candidates, to the candidates and to the public at large.”
The governor’s office and the Florida Division of Elections did not respond to a request from the Miami Herald for information that would back up Antonacci’s claim.
Joe Scott, Broward’s supervisor of elections, did not comment directly about the claim made by his predecessor. But he said that his main takeaway from Thursday’s news conference was the announcement that the elections crime office would be pursuing felons who lie on their registration form.
“I was never notified that my office did anything wrong,” said Scott, who added that county supervisors of elections are not tasked with running background checks on voters when they first register. He added that the Florida Division of Elections regularly communicates with county elections departments when it is investigating cases of voter fraud, but he was not personally aware of what DeSantis was going to announce.
“They were very mysterious about it, with everybody. Nobody really knew what it was about,” Scott said, acknowledging there were some false rumors that he was going to be suspended. “You’re making an election-related announcement in my backyard, and they didn’t tell me anything about it.”
Despite current law, DeSantis said all elections officials “will be on notice” if they have allowed a felon to vote and nothing happened — “we step in.”
He said that in 2020 in Florida, fraud occurred “not on the great grand scale, but you would see examples, and then nothing would get prosecuted,” he said. “That’s just going to beget more of it.”
He cited changes to make ballot harvesting a felony offense in Florida, changes that take effect in 2024 that require all voters to request a vote-by-mail ballot each cycle and provide in-person identification when seeking a mail-in ballot. He also noted the increased penalties on counties that have inaccurate voter rolls and bans on outside contributors to county elections officials who face budget shortfalls to run their elections.
After saying that Florida has now “done more on election integrity than any state in the country” after the last two legislative sessions, DeSantis again confirmed that Florida’s elections ran without a hitch in 2020.
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